A man finds a display at a local museum that connects him with his past.
|I hadn't been in the museum for some time. My time as docent there was long in the past, and my volunteer efforts waned into wearisome indifference, occasioning—at first—frequent calls, then infrequent ones, for my return, until weeks, then months passed without my response. I felt no pang of regret, no guilt, no remorse; instead, it was though my cage had been opened and I escaped.|
Daily, though, and years later, I jogged past the old relic of that long-ago house that the town insisted was a mansion. But it wasn't anything more than a large house. it was the retirement home of my great grandfather. I visited there as a toddler and had some faint memory of the two or three rooms in the house where I was allowed.
One day, far into my daily jog, cold droplets of rain found their way through my sweaty hair and rolled down, cooling my brow. I looked up at a fast, graying sky, the promise of November weather. It was a late autumn day hinting at snow. I was nearly in front of the museum, so I decided to step in to wait out the rain. I braved myself for the onslaught of jibes and overstated welcome back's.
After I settled my bearings and peered into the badly lit lobby, I realized I didn't recognize anybody—except for Lillian, of course, the rather elderly custodian and "keeper of the relics," as we always called her. I waved, rather meekly, but Lillian sternly stared back, and I rather thought she didn't know who I was anymore.
"Phil," she finally said, "There's a new item on display—new to you, that is, but it's been here for about three years. There was a big write-up in the papers when it was donated, but I guess you never saw it." She turned and waved me forward.
While it wasn't prominent in its placement, it still wasn't hard to miss: a tall narrow box about a foot square and four feet high holding a clear Lucite box with something golden inside it. I moved forward to where I could make out a gold chain that held on one end a gold pocket watch, a rather large pocket watch, complete with an embossed leather fob that held a Masonic emblem and a Lodge number below it. I gasped at the weight that the chain and watch must have been to the wearer, the watch probably in his waistcoat pocket and the chain secured to his belt loop.
I put my hands on the case to get a closer view. Lillian offered to open the case to let me more closely examine the assemblage, to put it in my hands. Before I could refuse, she had the case open and lifted everything and held them out to me. I took them, not realizing that I had underestimated the weight. It was gold-heavy. And it shone. Not a scratch, not a mark, perfect in every way, a true treasure in the hallway of our poor museum.
"Open the back," she said. She pointed to the stem and motioned for me to push it in and turn. I did so, and the back sprung quietly and smoothly away. Engraved on the inside was a stag's head. Below that were etched some words.
I moved to better light and tilted the watch until the words became clear: "To my son, on his 21st birthday," and here it gave a date from the year 1912 and, "And upon his acceptance into the Masonic Lodge."
"Whose was this?" I asked.
"Your great-grandfather's," Lillian quipped, a tiny smile of smugness creeping onto her face. "We wrote you and called you, asked if you would come to the little press briefing we had, but we never heard back from you. We mentioned your name, of course."
I was stunned, unable to speak. The whole milieu changed around me. A smell of lavender and dust flooded my memory and became as real to me as the rain still drying on my shoulders. I recall the sunlight stealing through the wavy glass windows, revealing the dust that was floating in its rays, looking for places to land, to coat, to merge with the sills and the furniture and the rugs and the freshly set dishes waiting for dinner to be brought in from the kitchen. I saw the bare arms of my great-grandmother entering, careful with steaming pots of stew and plates of smoked ham and potatoes, green beans from the garden, and newly cut lettuce with chewy, sometimes hot, radishes that I fought for from my high chair.
Then the room emptied of people and was dim from the austere lighting that my great grandparents swore by. I could hear the distinct rattle of dishes in the sink at the end of the hall. Henry, my great-grandfather, years older and many feet taller, his clothes still smelling like the hayloft, was speaking, somewhat roughly to me, his voice coming out in great, scented bursts of burnt tobacco.
I must have done something wrong, but I was unaware of what. I stood motionless. With each pump of his lungs his great golden watch swung from its chain closer and closer to my head. The brightness of it in that dark parlor threatened me until that great gold watch finally thunked into my head and brought me into total submission.
Lillian called me back to reality.
"What days do you want to work?" she said. "We have tours on Thursdays and Saturdays…"